Dark Chocolate: A Healthy Valentine’s Day Treat
WASHINGTON — Chocolate is a popular gift on holidays like Valentine’s Day. While you can get all kinds of delicious sweets made with chocolate that make it feel like a sugary treat, dark chocolate also has many health benefits. Take note however, many chocolate products have additives that separate it from its purest, most nutritious form.
In the spirit of the holiday, we will explain dark chocolate’s history and nutrient properties, potential health benefits and why it’s okay to enjoy sweets in moderation while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Breaking Down Dark Chocolate
Chocolate dates back to at least 400 AD when the Mayans enjoyed a hot beverage made with cocoa. It comes from the seeds of a tree called Theobroma Cacao, Greek for food of the gods. Not only is it delicious, but it is considered to have health benefits.
Cocoa is the main ingredient in chocolate and that’s where the nutrients come from. Cocoa is an excellent source of healthy fats and minerals, including potassium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, copper and magnesium.
Cocoa’s main health attraction? It’s a great source of polyphenols, flavonoids and catechins. These substances are antioxidants, which can improve cellular health, repair damaged DNA and reduce inflammation.
When you hear that dark chocolate is good for you, it’s mainly because of these antioxidants. Chocolate is considered “dark” when it has more cocoa and less added milk and sugar. Look for dark chocolate with at least 60% to 80% cocoa. The higher the percentage, the more flavonoids and polyphenols it contains.
While more polyphenols bring more health benefits, they also give it a bitter flavor, which is why some people may prefer the sweeter taste of milk chocolate.
Healthy Reasons to Eat Dark Chocolate
Dark chocolate has gained popularity over the years for its potentially positive health effects. Many studies have investigated how it can protect your heart health, increase cognitive health, reduce inflammation and boost your immune system.
Physical Health Benefits:
- Highest Food Source of Polyphenols: Many studies found that cocoa has the highest amount of polyphenols (the antioxidant), even more than berries and other foods that may seem healthier.
- Lowers Risk of Cardiovascular Diseases: Multiple meta-analyses found that consuming cocoa in dark chocolate can lower your risk of heart disease, heart attack, diabetes and stroke.
- May Improve Cognitive Health: A systematic review suggests that children and young people under 25 consuming chocolate had improved cognitive scores, likely due to the polyphenols. Other studies found dark chocolate can reduce mental fatigue and improve memory.
- More on Heart and Brain Health: A 2022 review of studies also found dark chocolate to be a “functional food” with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Antioxidants in cocoa may help prevent cardiovascular diseases and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
- May Help Lower Bad Cholesterol: A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that combining almonds with dark chocolate and cocoa helped participants lower their levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. It was likely due to the antioxidants.
- May Help Lower Blood Pressure: The Mayo Clinic states that dark chocolate may help lower your blood pressure. Another property of flavonols is their ability to increase nitric oxide in your body. Nitric oxide is a natural gas that relaxes your blood vessels and improves blood flow. Nitric oxide can help lower blood pressure, especially if you have hypertension.
Mental Health Benefits:
- The Gut-Brain Axis: One study found that eating dark chocolate can boost mood and reduce negative emotions. This study focuses on the connection between your gut and brain. Cocoa functions as a prebiotic, contributing to a healthy diversity of bacteria in your gut.
- Neurotransmitters: Research shows chocolate interacts with several neurotransmitters or brain signals, including serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. You may recognize these as chemicals that can make you feel happiness and other positive emotions.
Eating Sweets in Moderation
Of course, eating chocolate alone can’t magically prevent diseases and boost your heart health, however, when consumed in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet, it can.
Although we often discuss healthy food, food plays other roles in your life besides influencing your health. It’s part of family gatherings and traditions, social interactions and emotional situations and has cultural significance.
If you are trying to stick to a generally healthy diet, it’s best not to deprive yourself of things you enjoy. You’ll be more likely to stay on track if you allow flexibility.
The Food of the Gods
Enjoying chocolate on Valentine’s Day with a loved one (or by yourself!) can be a happy moment. If it’s dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, it will be rich in antioxidants that can help improve your mental and physical health.
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